Moving towards Meta-Politics: Notes on Alain Badiou’s Political Criticism

Since the publication of Being and Event1 in 1988, Alain Badiou has established himself as inarguably the most ambitious philosopher in the Continental tradition in quite some time. His rapidly growing oeuvre has come to encompass metaphysics, ethics, politics, art, cinema and more. Badiou has truly taken it upon himself to build and defend a genuine philosophical system (once a faux pas par excellence) intended to stand next the great architectural edifices of Hegel, Kant, and of course Plato. The result has been something of a philosophical epiphany, with many scholars nostalgic for grand systematicty taking Badiou at his word that he is the real deal,2with other being more critical.3

All this makes thorough engagement with his work ever more important, especially as his influence on a new generation of continental philosophers becomes ever more apparent.4 This note is intended as an admiring examination of Badiou’s, primarily in its critical dimensions. Badiou’s politics draw heavily on the metaphysical framework established in his more directly philosophical works. He understands politics to be one of the “conditions” which constitute human subjectivity, alongside love, art, and philosophy itself. To summarize quickly: for Badiou, politics occurs when we are confronted with a historical event, such as the French or Russian revolution, from which a new truth of social ordering emerges from the infinite multiplicity of Being.5 As subject, human beings then have the equal chance of choosing fidelity to this new truth or rejecting it. Obviously, Badiou prefers that we embrace the former and its radical potential for transformation. As he nicely puts it in Conditions:

…politics amounts to an immanent site of though that disposes its nominations, its sites and its statements in accordance with the law of a specific fidelity to an event.6

Given the complexity and interconnectedness of his work, unpacking what Badiou means by politics can be a formidable task. As indicated earlier, to explicate by contrast this note will highlight what Badiou is not trying to achieve with his politics. The hope is that this will better indicate what makes his position unique, both because of its systematic connection to his metaphysics, and due to its own novelty as a philosophical account of (meta) politics.

Firstly, Badiou is deeply opposed to developing an explicit political theory of the type popular in the analytical tradition. He is deeply critical of philosophers who assume the stance of a “brutal and confused objectivity” when developing “ethical demands” that are to be imposed on the world.7

There are two reasons for this unusual stance. The first is that the practice of political theorizing runs against Badiou’s ontological commitments. Badiou believes that traditional political theorists operate on the presumption that it must be possible to determine once and for all the truths that should order all social life. Plato is the classical example. But Badiou rejects this totalizing logic at the ontological level. As there is no singular point where multiplicity merges into oneness, there are no final truths about how the social world should be ordered. There are historical events which establish their own truths, and subjects who can choose to show fidelity to them or not.

The second reason Badiou rejects constructing a political theory is more explicitly related to his politics. He is committed to a radical project of egalitarian communism, where the state will gradually wither away and the people will be emancipated from the shackles of their “masters” and the subservient intellectual cronies who vindicate their rule. Badiou does not think it is possible to stay committed to this project while developing a set of principles which are to order emancipated and equal subjects. To do so would be to arrogantly assume a privileged position denied to most people.8 As he puts it in Metapolitics:

The trouble with most doctrines of justice is their will to define what is, followed by attempts to realize it. But justice, which is the philosophical name for the egalitarian maxim, cannot be defined. For equality is not an objective of action, it is an axiom. There is no politics bound to truth without the affirmation-an affirmation that can neither be confirmed nor guaranteed-of a universal capacity for political truth.9

Some of this rhetoric suggests that Badiou is a close to being a post-modern critic; someone who offers critiques of the contemporary social order but rejects the intellectual task of conceiving alternatives. And indeed, his work develops many trenchant criticisms of capitalism, the state, and the ideologies of the powerful. But Badiou rejects the post-modern position that the job of the philosopher is only to engage in these critical tasks. Indeed, he does not believe that post-modern critics can even be called philosophers in the strong sense. They are instead anti-philosophers who believe that all reality is constituted by power relations, or “bodies and languages” fashioned by the world as he sometimes puts it.10 The political payoff of their project is what Badiou derisively terms “democratic materialism” which is oriented around the presumption that, since all truth claims are equally groundless, it is best to consider every viewpoint whatever their substantive content. As he puts it in Logics of Worlds:

In order to validate the equation ‘existence=individual=body’ contemporary doxa must valiantly reduce humanity to an overstretched version of animality…Moreover, it is essentially a democratic materialism. That is because the contemporary consensus, in recognizing the plurality of languages, presupposes their juridical equality. Hence, the assimilation of humanity to animality culminates in the identification of the human animal with the diversity of its sub-species and the democratic rights that inhere in this diversity…Communities and cultures, colours and pigments, religions and clergies, uses and customs, disparate sexualities, public intimacies and the publicity of the intimate: everything and everyone deserves to be recognized and protected by the law.11

Here, Badiou seems to tightly conflate the emergence of the post-modern mindset with our contemporary commitment to human rights projects and the liberal legalism that seems to imply.

This may strike many people as an unusual gesture, given the propensity of post modern critics to be at the very least skeptical of human rights. But it is important to understand that Badiou’s reasoning here is quite precise. He sees both liberalism and post-modernism as branches of the same anti-philosophical tree-dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals to express their identities and viewpoints with as little intrusion as possible. This quite radical conclusion suggests that, in this respect at least, liberalism and post-modernism are alike at their core. Both traditions reject the idea that there could be ontological truths which transcends our individual bodies and languages and to which we should demonstrate some fidelity. And indeed, he would seem to be standing on some solid ground here. Modern liberal philosophy since a least Kant’s (anti) Copernican revolution12 has been skeptical that we can achieve an understanding of some transcendent truths. Since we are always bound by the limitations of our mind, we can never have unfiltered access to truth and goodness as these things are “in themselves.” This skepticism about truth is why many liberal philosophers have tried to argue that we must respect the views of as many individuals as possible, since we can never be sure that our positions about what is true and good are beyond criticism. Indeed, some philosophers such as Rawls have gone so far as to call for a purely “political liberalism” detached from even the most basic metaphysical presumptions about truth and goodness “in themselves.”13 In this respect, liberalism seems to have many connections to post-modernism’s anti-philosophical critiques of foundationalism. While post-modern thinkers may speak more radically than modern liberals, according to Badiou both adopt more or less the same conclusions about truth and its relationship to politics.

This brings us back to what makes Badiou’s politics unique in a more positive sense. While he does not want to develop a political theory which once and for all will determine what truths should be adopted in politics, he is also unwilling to accept the liberal and post-modern position that there can be no truths in politics, only bodies and languages. Badiou is able and willing to defend an argument that there are “truths” and that they should play a role in framing our political subjectivity. Indeed, he argues that truths, as they manifest on the sites of true historical events, are important to demonstrate the lies propagated by our “masters” in the state and amongst the capitalist class.14 When truths manifest in historical events, they demonstrate the falsity of what has come before and open a new horizon for genuine politics. As mentioned earlier, in these situations we have the option of showing fidelity to these ontologically emergent truths or rejecting them. Interestingly enough, Badiou sees this as an ethical act, but one with unique connotations for our identity. In many respects he follows existential thinkers in seeing the decision to show fidelity15 to the truth of the event as constitutive of our human subjectivity. In the moment of the event, the subject is called upon to “give everything he is-his body, his abilities” to “enable the passing of a truth along its path.” The subject must then invent a new way of being and acting in the situation.16 But Badiou goes beyond existentialism in maintaining that, since the event brings a new truth into the world that is not beholden to the dynamical laws that may have governed previous truths, the compulsion for the subject to invent new ways of being in the world always has a radically egalitarian dimension. The event destroys the laws of the old hierarchy, and clears figurative space for a new and more equal social ordering.

This leads us to Badiou’s more constructive political commitments, which we do not have space to take up here. The point of this brief note is just to show that Badiou’s project is a unique attempt to combine the best features of both classical political theorizing and post-modern critical theory, drawing on a distinct collection of influences. His work demonstrates a level of ambition and scope that is very in the age of democratic materialism. In a world characterized by alterative facts and growing cynicism on the potential for political change, this strikes us as an inspiring and important lesson for progressive thinkers everywhere.

This is part of a larger project on Badiou’s work started by the author and Christopher Satoor of York University.

Matthew McManus has recently completed his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies.

Show 16 footnotes

  1.  See Alain Badiou. Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham. (London, UK. Continuum, 2005)
  2. Consider Zizek’s now famous comments that Badiou is a modern “Hegel.” For a more constructive appraisal see Slavoj Zizek. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. (London, UK. Verso Press, 1999), 127-167.
  3.  See James Williams. “A Review of Matthew McLennan’s Philosophy, Sophistry, Anti-philosophy: Badiou’s Dispute with Lyotard.” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, (2016)
  4. Consider the impact of Badiou’s work on his former student Quentin Meillasoux, who has published an influential book of his own. See Quentin Meillasoux. After Finitude.
  5. See Alain Badiou. Conditions, trans. Steven Corcoran. (London: Continuum, 2008)
  6.  Badiou, Conditions, 163
  7.  See Alain Badiou. Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker. (London: Verso, 2005), 11.
  8. As we shall see later, he is not entirely faithful to this. At other points he can sometimes come across as quite dismissive of the idea that all individuals opinions should be considered, but for unique reasons.
  9.  See Badiou, Metapolitics, 99.
  10. See Alain Badiou. Logics of Worlds: Being and Event II, trans. Alberto Toscano. (London, UK. Continuum, 2009), 1
  11.  See Badiou. Logics of Worlds, 2
  12. This point about the anti-Copernican nature of Kant’s revolution is emphasized by Badiou’s student Meillasoux. Meillasoux highlights that, where Copernicus sought to invert anthropocentric cosmologies, Kant made the entirety of knowledge dependent on what can be experienced by human beings. See Quentin Meillasoux. After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency. (London, UK. Bloomsbury Academic, 2010)
  13. See John Rawls. Political Liberalism: With a New Introduction and the ‘Reply to Habermas.’ (New York, NY. Columbia University Press, 1993)
  14. See Alain Badiou. The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings, trans. Gregory Elliott. (London, UK. Verso, 2012), 1.
  15. At times he uses the more overtly Kierkegaardian term of “faith” when describing our commitment to the truth of the event.
  16. See Alain Badiou. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward. (London, UK. Verso Press, 2012), 41-42
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